If I were Trulieve's Public Relations Counselor
In January, a worker at Trulieve's Holyoke, MA production facility died. OSHA deemed the death due to inhalation of cannabis dust. As horrible as this was, if I were Trulieve's PR counsel, I would have recommended that they use this tragedy as a moment to strengthen, instead of worsen, the company's brand image.
To be sure, Trulieve would never have listened to this counsel, but let's imagine how they could have changed the negative image of the company (and the MSO Gang) and begun building consumer trust.
Get ahead of it...nothing stays buried.
Get ahead of it...nothing stays buried
If something is newsworthy, people are going to find out about it. So, the best plan of action for Trulieve here would have been to get ahead of the news rather than to try and bury it.
Here is what that could look like:
Immediately issue a statement (like a mini press release). Here's a stab at it. I would put this message out pro-actively across Massachusetts.
We are devastated to announce the passing of one of our Holyoke, MA employees. We are working hand in hand with OSHA to understand what happened. Employee safety is a top concern of ours at Trulieve, and we will continue to push the industry safety standards forward to our employees safe and make sure our customers receive the highest quality products.
Offer employee counseling to those affected by the loss of their co-worker.
Hire an outside compliance expert to inspect all of Trulieve's facility for safety and publish the findings and the mitigation.
The biggest issue in the cannabis industry is the lack of transparency. Perhaps it stems from the fact that many cannabis OGs had to hide their businesses for decades. But, there's no excuse for the MSOs try to bury all of their dirty laundry, and often act like nothing short of Boardwalk Empire mobsters. This recent op-ed by Steve DeAngelo compares corporate cannabis to a pyramid scheme. We hold businesses in every other industry accountable to their bad actions (cancel culture), but in cannabis, people are afraid to whistle-blow because the MSOs hold the purse strings to the entire supply chain (it's called a monopoly, I think).
So, how could Trulieve use this extremely scary business moment to shift them into a true industry leadership position? Transparency.
After they issue the statement, complying with OSHA, Trulieve begins an employee safety campaign. They would hire a team of experts to help them bring all of their facilities above code. They'd shape the story into a commitment to employee safety, thereby becoming the clear industry leader. A company that is committed to their employees is also committed to its customers.
I am lucky enough to live in Colorado, where it's become table stakes for cannabis businesses to invest in community outreach. Here, dispensaries are as prolific as Starbucks and dispensaries must compete for the business of the local community.
In East Coast states, like Massachusetts and especially New Jersey, Illinois and Florida, the customers have few choices to make in terms of where to buy cannabis. There are few locally owned options and most are MSOs. Trulieve and the other MSOs lobby to keep the little guys out of the first years of legalization. Since customers don't have many options, they'll shop at MSOs like Trulieve. And, because MSOs will always be able to beat the little guys on price and deals, there's no incentive for the companies to build meaningful community relations. They know the local politicians, but how many local patients do they know?
Trulieve and their team should have spent the last 6 months building community relations and employee relations in Holyoke, MA. Brand building through showing up in the community and collectively mourning the loss of one of their own.
This news just came to light to the cannabis industry, but it's just a matter of time before this story hits mainstream media and is blown out of proportion. Also, this story doesn't just hurt Trulieve, it hurts the entire cannabis industry as the mainstream media will deem this "the first cannabis death." Had the team spent time preparing for the news, rather than hiding and fighting the OSHA fine, Trulieve could be in a entirely new position today and they'd be helping the industry's position when the mainstream starts vilifying cannabis for being unsafe.
Trulieve had the opportunity to shape the story, but now they only way we can see them as evil, as they have not publicly addressed this issue. Meanwhile Kim Rivers, CEO of Trulieve has been nominated for industry awards and is continuously praised for her leadership. Her husband is in jail for bribing lawmakers to win cannabis licenses. So, it's much more likely that they have been trying to sweep this under the rug.
I really hope the rug gets pulled out from under them if they are the bad actors they seem to be.
But, if you or your company ever finds yourself in a situation like this, don't hide. Find yourself some good PR counsel and make a plan to shape the story by doing the right thing. This is how you build reputation and take an actual leadership position.